Roxanna Andrade

Strolling through IKEA is one of my favorite pastimes. There is something quite empowering about being presented with thirty-eight options for nightstands and debating whether MALM or LISTERBY (or maybe even NIKKEBY) would go best in my bedroom.

When in need of new furniture, this is where most people go. Prices are cheap, designs are sleek, and most importantly, they are just a lot of fun to browse around. I can always spot at least three young couples running back and forth between showrooms, discussing the best style for their new apartment and their assorted children laying on the many beds, testing out the comfort of each one.

Every IKEA store is the same — a massive maze with a section for each room in the home with rows of neatly displayed furniture and showrooms that look like stock photos. Because there are no windows except in the cafeteria, when you’re inside, it is impossible to tell whether you are in London, Houston, or Melbourne. It is a utopia that is disconnected from the outside world.

At IKEA, all of your needs are met. Forgot to bring a tape measure? No matter — there are 1m paper tape measures stationed every few feet. Need help with interior design? Ask the friendly workers behind the information desks located in every section, always eager to show you a computer simulation of what your room would look like with that bed and this armchair.

You don’t even need to ponder where to wheel your cart to next. There are white arrows on the ground, pointing out your shopping route. All you need to do is mindlessly follow these arrows. In fact, if you don’t follow them, you’ll end up walking past KLEPPSTAD five times.

Once on an IKEA trip, all I needed were plants to decorate my empty shelves. But the white arrows took me through the living room, workspace, kitchen, dining, bedroom, and children’s sections. I ended up with a shopping cart piled to the brim containing a popsicle mold (that I have used exactly once in the past year), baking bowls, photo frames, a white clock, and one succulent. In my defense, I have yet to notice anyone walking out of IKEA with a cart that is less than half full.

But the unease I felt about having gotten more than I intended was soon forgotten when the warm, saliva-inducing smell of Swedish meatballs hit me. I had arrived at the cafeteria. A humongous poster featuring a plate of glistening meatballs covered in cream sauce loomed up in front. It was only $5.99. Suddenly, I realized that all that shopping had made me hungry, so I pushed my heavy cart to one of the tables and stood in line for my 12-meatball plate with mashed potatoes.

The cafeteria in every IKEA is a huge space lit with bright white lights, lined with rows of simple square tables and chairs. There’s a calm, minimalistic atmosphere that encourages shoppers to stop and rest for a while.

This ambiance pervades not only the cafeteria, but the entire store. I felt it the second I walked into the boxy yellow and blue building. Everywhere I looked, my eyes were rewarded by serene scenery. I remember the dominant colors in the store being white, gray, and blue. It was very quiet—all I heard was the indistinct chatter of other customers, presumably discussing their furniture choices.

And there is that distinct IKEA smell. It’s that scent that makes you think of freshly cut wood and clean sheets. You know, THE IKEA smell. The store planners have so carefully crafted these sensory elements to ensure that your shopping experience is as pleasant as can be.

But the best part of an IKEA trip is getting home and assembling the new furniture. The illustrative instruction manuals are easy enough even for me, someone with no engineering talent whatsoever, to follow. It is quite simple to insert nails into pre-drilled holes on a pre-cut slate of wood. Still, building my own desk and shelf for my room evoke an intense sense of accomplishment.

Cake mixes, when they first appeared in stores, were not popular. They made baking cakes seem too easy, and housewives felt that their work had been stolen. So a new version that required the addition of an egg was introduced, giving people a false sense of power by including an extra step that required participation. This slight revision caused the sale of cake mixes to rise. According to a research paper written by Michael I. Norton, people place a higher value on things that they labored to create, rather than things someone else created because making something successfully makes us feel competent. This is called the IKEA effect.

IKEA’s system of entrusting the process of assembling furniture to its customers also explains why you can get a full-sized wooden wardrobe for just 99 dollars. This system is crucial to IKEA’s business model: stylish furniture for cheap prices, a modern example of Bauhaus.

Bauhaus, founded by architect Walter Gropius, originated in 1919 in Weimar Germany. The movement’s fundamental idea was the unification of function and design. Students of the school believed that practical objects used in everyday life should also be art. Simple yet chic furniture was created, like the Barcelona chairs and globe lamps that exist in offices and homes today. Bauhaus furniture was mass-produced, forever transforming art from an elitist luxury enjoyed only by the upper classes to something accessible to all. The effects of Bauhaus are evident in almost everything today, from Apple’s sleek product designs to the simple architecture of modern homes.

Bauhaus is everywhere in IKEA. It is etched not only into the IKEA furniture, but also in the store’s minimalist design. It is what makes IKEA so attractive. But consider this: IKEA is a business. Its purpose is to make profit.

Studies on store atmospherics show that sensory details are used in many shops as a tool to shape shoppers’; moods. They are crafted to make customers feel at ease in a store, causing them to spend more time in it. And recall IKEA’s white arrows, the ones that take you around every part of the store; and the furniture assembly that grants customers the satisfaction of self-sufficiency.

It’s obvious that IKEA isn’t the only business trying to turn a profit. Take Amazon’s one-click system and Apple’s eleven generations of iPhones. Most of us are aware of, and maybe even fear, the widespread, totalitarian power of Amazon and Apple. But there is something comfortingly foreign, something unreachable about IKEA. Everyone knows Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs, but who’s heard of Ingvar Kamprad? Who knows that IKEA owns vast forests in Romania, the Balkans, and even in Alabama?

The Swedish mystical masterminds have so brilliantly engineered IKEA to make shoppers believe that they are shopping with autonomy. The store’s ambiance is designed to make us want to stay. We feel like we have infinite choices and complete freedom to pick out pieces to decorate our homes with.

I will keep returning to IKEA. I can’t help that I’m drawn to the utopic otherness of the stores, or that I feel good when I look around my beautifully redecorated room. Even if that feeling is one that is manufactured, it’s still a good feeling. I’m willing to spend a few hours traveling the route set for me by IKEA, picking out furniture as if I have complete authority over my choices, because the truth is, I can’t distinguish autonomy from the illusion of it.

Mao Shiotsu | mao.shiotsu@yale.edu